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Having it all figured out, or figuring it all out as you go? A journey back in time

I’ve been asked multiple times in the past several years to describe my transition out of academia. Although I was deep into undergoing this transition myself, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I had in the process become a resource for others who were also going through the same thing. I was happy to be able to help someone else along the way, and offer my advice.

In this post, instead of starting in chronological order, I thought it would be more useful to think about my academic experience and transition into my current role in a retrospective fashion. This is because, although it appears that I’ve had it all figured out, for a number of years I had no clue what I wanted to do. I initially had a very vague idea of what I wanted my life to be like – overtime, the definition of what that was has narrowed down and funneled into a path that was both unexpected and incredibly rewarding. But none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been brave enough to step out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. For someone who has always been a planner, this was the hardest lesson to learn, but also the best advice I could give to those trying to figure out their careers, particularly early career researchers.

 

A journey into policy & advocacy 

I am currently the Policy & Advocacy Fellow at the Society for Neuroscience. New in the role, I am starting to understand why it’s so important to advocate for neuroscience research funding and improved training for neuroscientists. Although I don’t come from a neuroscience background, I am able to leverage my scientific knowledge to this field – especially reading neuroscience research papers now as part of my job. This is also an extremely interesting environment of experts from various backgrounds, and I found that having a PhD is incredibly valued here. That is definitely not the type of treatment I had received in academia, nor did I feel special because of it, since everyone around me had a PhD or was working towards one. But now, being out of the academic bubble, I have a different perspective on how my training has benefitted my career into policy & advocacy. I also wouldn’t be here if someone hadn’t taken a chance on me and given me this incredible opportunity to learn and contribute to the mission of the team and this field. That is a good lesson to impart, in terms of being grateful to those who give you opportunities in life.

Being in the Advocacy & Training Department is also rewarding, as these aspects are of great importance to me, especially coming from an academic background and having seen the shortcomings of the research system in preparing early career researchers for various careers. During my academic training, I have been through and seen a lot of things that I wanted to change about the research system itself. My current position is teaching me how to broadly leverage this background towards broadly advocating for an improved research enterprise.

 

The Future of Research 

I would have never gotten interested in advocacy & training for scientists if I hadn’t become involved with the non-profit organization Future of Research, which seeks to empower early career researchers with evidence-based resources to improve the research enterprise. Here, I was for the first time exposed to social science research (which I would still love to do more of someday) by examining postdoc salaries nationally. This was such an interesting project due to the fundamental need to pay postdocs what they are worth, which is just basic common sense, but also because postdocs have been understudied and undervalued for over 50 years. The project also gave me the opportunity to learn more about the experiences of early career researchers in academia. Members of the organization also subsequently advocated for change in postdoc salaries at higher levels based on this work, which was very exciting for us. I will be forever grateful to this amazing group of people for giving me a sense of belonging and direction, and showing me the tremendous potential that we have to effect real change in science together. It is such a great privilege being part of this organization.

 

The decision to pursue a postdoc

Stepping back, I sometimes regret the decision to pursue a postdoc at University of Louisville and think I should have gone straight into science policy. The postdoc experience did however turn out to be valuable in its own right. I realized that the default path was not the way for me, and that it was okay not to do what everyone else did. Having a passion for an academic career and doing it well is quite an accomplishment, and I admire those who do it for the right reasons. I admittedly did a postdoc partly because I was still considering an academic career, while also still figuring things out. I would advise not to do a postdoc for the latter reason, but rather really question the purpose for which you are doing it. During this time, I became really interested in biomedical workforce training precisely because of the education and professional development that I was lacking myself, and I knew that needed to change. I subsequently became a strong advocate for changing the training environment for early career researchers in academia. This later factored into my overarching desire to improve the system from within. Realizing this was next to impossible as a postdoc, I sought to find a body that would allow for this type of advocacy to occur as an independent body. That was Future of Research.  

 

Being mentored in graduate school

In contrast to my postdoc years, graduate school was a great time for me to develop professionally. I pursued a PhD at Emory University, where I worked for a wonderful mentor who taught me everything about science. Later, I realized how much this mentorship mattered and how it shaped me as a professional, even into my current role. I am also grateful that this training is valued in my current position, as I seek to leverage it for a greater purpose towards improving the research enterprise as a whole. Graduate school, of course, was not easy, but in the end I learned many valuable lessons. Most of all, I was grateful for the environment that I had there, and for a mentor who truly invested in me. The effects of this mentorship are still felt today, and I suspect will be for a long time as I progress in my career.  

 

Overall lessons

I will leave you with some final thoughts. I think having a good mentor is a blessing, and it’s important to be grateful for those who take time to invest in you. Only pursue something for the right reasons, and be the kind of person who is always curious and unafraid to take professional risks. Realizing that your role has a greater purpose than yourself will put things into a new perspective. Also, it’s okay to explore what you want to do with your life- just throw your whole self into whatever it is you are doing at the moment, and let the rest work itself out. Life is a journey and an exploration, so don’t fret if things don’t always go your way- just take a chance and see where it leads you. The unknown can be scary, or it can be exciting, depending on our attitude, and sometimes it’s both. But stepping out of our comfort zone will be useful down the road for personal and professional growth and discovery of new directions.

 

Featured image: obtained from Pixabay under Pixabay license, i.e. free for commercial use and no attribution required.

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